In Glare of Prime Time, Duo Delivers

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The New York Sun

Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh are the best beach volleyball tandem in the world, but they’re much more than just that.

They’re also a couple of TV stars, as evidenced by NBC’s decision to give them as much airtime as Michael Phelps or Kobe Bryant. And they’re changing the way their sport is viewed, to such an extent that NCAA schools may soon offer beach volleyball scholarships.

NBC was operating under the assumption that May-Treanor and Walsh would waltz to the final when it negotiated with the International Olympic Committee to schedule the women’s final for tomorrow morning in Beijing — live in prime time tonight in America. The network assumed right.

The Americans, who won the gold in 2004 without losing a game, will bring a 107-match winning streak to tonight’s gold medal match. They’ve been so dominant that no team has even forced them into a third game so far in Beijing.

But as great as May-Treanor and Walsh are at their sport, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the reason NBC shows so much beach volleyball — a sport that generally ranks somewhere near archery and equestrian in terms of the American public’s interest — has less to do with their athleticism than their bikinis. NBC hasn’t been shy about portraying May-Treanor and Walsh as the sex symbols of the Summer Olympics, and although NBC does show men’s beach volleyball, too, the men’s matches usually have the feel of something the network feels obligated to televise.

Whatever the reason for May-Treanor and Walsh getting national television attention, they’ve earned it with their play in the sand. The duo has so dominated the sport that if they somehow lose tonight’s gold medal match to China’s Tian Jia and Wang Jie, it would be every bit as big an upset as the U.S. men’s or women’s basketball teams losing a game. Tian and Wang, who are actually seeded first in the tournament because of an Olympic rule that gives seeding preference to the host country, will give May-Treanor and Walsh their toughest test, but it’s not a test anyone doubts they’ll ace.

Both May-Treanor and Walsh were among the best college volleyball players in America in the 1990s. The 5-foot-9-inch May-Treanor, who married Florida Marlins catcher Matt Treanor shortly after winning the 2004 gold medal, was the national player of the year for Long Beach State in 1997 and 1998. The 6-foot-3-inch Walsh was the 1999 player of the year at Stanford. At that time, the indoor version of volleyball was the only one that most people considered a legitimate sport. But the pair’s success in the Olympics is a big part of the reason that the NCAA is considering adding what will be called “sand” volleyball as an official scholarship sport, starting with the 2009-10 school year.

That makes May-Treanor and Walsh two of the most influential athletes in these Olympics, in addition to being two of the best athletes in these Olympics. Tonight they’ll win their 108th consecutive match and earn their second gold medal.

The New York Sun

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